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Environmentalists fear Md. transit spending won’t be green

Debate over pumping $800 million more into annual transportation spending has sparked concern among environmental groups that worry such an infusion, if unchecked, is a road to more sprawl, pollution runoff and greenhouse gases.

Gov. Martin O’Malley has put the state’s transportation funding needs at the top of his agenda following the recently concluded legislative session. He has courted support among the business community to help reverse the recession-driven slide that took $2 billion out of what was a $10.6 billion, six-year capital plan.

While acknowledging the need for new transportation money, environmentalists — typically strong supporters of O’Malley — said Wednesday they want the governor and lawmakers to spend more carefully.

“This has dimensions that are much bigger than the red ink,” said Fred Tutman, founder and CEO of Patuxent Riverkeeper, a nonprofit advocate for that watershed.

Tutman is also a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Maryland Transportation Funding, the group that recommended state lawmakers find $800 million more — $600 million in revenue that could leverage another $200 million in borrowing — a year for transportation infrastructure.

“It’s been very, very hard for us to get an environmental agenda on the table,” Tutman said.

Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, said lawmakers should pare the $800 million to cover only what the state needs.

Maryland should not “build new roads to serve poorly planned development,” she said. “We now know that we can’t fund that. And we never could.”

These environmental concerns were first raised during the legislative session, when Senate leaders pushed for an increase to the gas tax. That effort fizzled as gas prices spiked in response to upheaval in the Middle East. But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. has urged the governor to put the issue on the agenda during a special session this fall.

O’Malley has not said when, how, or even if he will attempt to boost transportation funding. In response to environmentalists’ concerns, a spokesman for the governor pointed to Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts and the administration’s efforts to promote electric car ownership and renewable energy production in the state.

“The bigger transportation strategy will always have a focus on transit, and easing congestion on the highways,” said Shaun Adamec, the spokesman.

Indeed, O’Malley has supported the Red Line and Purple Line light-rail projects proposed for Baltimore and the Washington suburbs. He has increased transit spending from 29 percent of the transportation budget to 35 percent.

The Department of Planning is also working on a statewide growth plan to limit suburban sprawl by up to two-thirds in 2030.

Without the plan, 550,000 acres of farmland, forests and other green spaces would be developed by 2030, according to state estimates. The plan would shrink that by about two-thirds, to 180,000 acres of new development, and keep much of the projected sprawl from Southern Maryland, the Eastern Shore and the northern stretches of Baltimore, Carroll and Harford counties.

“Growth is one of the biggest problems in the state,” said Brad Heavner, state director of Environment Maryland. “As we pave over open space, we’re increasing pollution in the bay and we’re increasing our greenhouse gas emissions.”

Lawmakers and transportation advocates cautioned that adding earmarks for specific transportation modes — such as buses, trains, highways — on to the legislation to raise the funding could scuttle the entire effort.

“The concern would be you have legislators in another area of the state, they’re looking at it more from a road perspective. Others are looking at it from a transit perspective,” said Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Garagiola, a Montgomery County Democrat who has emerged as one of the leading advocates of boosting transportation spending. “Getting to a consensus, a majority of the votes, on any transportation revenue package, is going to be very difficult as it is.”

Those concerns were echoed by Greater Baltimore Committee President and CEO Donald C. Fry.

“People start digging their heels in,” said Fry, a former lawmaker. “The key is to get the money in the pot. Then we can have those discussions.”